First Pitch: Why the Pirates Shouldn’t (Have) Sign(ed) Russell Martin
Earlier today I wrote my “First Pitch” article, titled “Why the Pirates Shouldn’t Sign Russell Martin”. I spent some time taking a deep look at Martin, and looking at the Pirates’ situation. I had it all set up to post at midnight. Then the Pirates signed Martin to a two year, $17 M deal. Nothing really changed with my thoughts below, except for the fact that the move happened. So I’m just going to go with it. The following is why I feel the Pirates shouldn’t have signed Martin. I’ll have some post-move comments below. Keep in mind that the following was written earlier today, before Martin signed.
It’s been almost a month since I did a “First Pitch” article. I’d say that’s entirely because I’ve been working on the 2013 Prospect Guide, but even if I wasn’t, there hasn’t been much to talk about. On a related note, I expect to finish writing the Prospect Guide this week, and it is on schedule for a mid-December release. You can pre-order your copy here.
Now that we actually have news to discuss, I wanted to go in to detail with my thoughts on Russell Martin. We’ve heard that the Pirates are offering three years and $22 M. Yesterday I said that I felt signing Martin would be a mistake. Some people in the comments disagreed, pointing out that $7-8 M a year for Martin would be worth it based on his WAR numbers, as well as his results in new studies like pitch framing. Let’s look at the facts on Martin, to determine how good of a catcher he is.
First of all, for those of you who were disappointed by the offense from Rod Barajas, it probably won’t get significantly better with Martin. He hit for a .211/.311/.403 line in 2012. That was slightly down from his .237/.324/.408 line in 2011. Both of those came in Yankee stadium, although he didn’t have any significant home/road splits that suggested his numbers would drop off moving out of New York.
If you look at the image below of Martin’s home run’s from last year (hit in Yankee Stadium, shown on the PNC Park map), he went opposite field a lot. Of his 13 homers at home, 10 went to right field. Yankee Stadium is very friendly in right field, but so is PNC. I’ll have more on that after the image.
At first I thought that Martin’s power would translate well to PNC, much better than Rod Barajas. Prior to joining the Pirates, Barajas had a .230/.287/.430 line with the Dodgers. With the Pirates he had a .206/.283/.343 line. The on-base percentage was about the same, although he saw a big reduction in power. You could argue that this was because he was a right-handed pull hitter in PNC Park. His slugging was a horrible .287 at home, and .403 on the road.
I checked Martin’s other home runs away from Yankee Stadium. All eight of them in 2012 were to left field. It was the same story in 2011. All ten of his road homers were pulled to left-field, and some of them would have been routine fly balls in PNC. In 2011 only two of his eight homers at Yankee Stadium were to right field. From 2008-2011 with the Dodgers, Martin only hit two homers to right or right-center.
I asked on Twitter what the reason could be for Martin’s power in New Yankee Stadium. Several people mentioned a jet stream out to right, although Joe Pawlikowski and Mike Axisa of RiverAveBlues.com both disagreed with that, saying the stadium is home run friendly in right field because of a short right field and a low wall. PNC has the short right field, but not the low wall, which means some of those homers above could turn to doubles. Either way, 2012 looks like a fluke when you look at the rest of Martin’s career and his road games and see that he’s been more of a pull hitter with home runs. That could lead to a decline in power numbers, similar to what we saw from Barajas.
There’s still no universal way to judge catching defense. A lot of it is stuff you can’t quantify, like how a catcher handles a pitching staff, or how a catcher calls a game. The things you can quantify come with disclaimers. The big thing to point to is the caught stealing percentage. Martin has seen a decline the last few years, going from 39% to 30% to 24% in 2012. His career average is 30%. The Pirates really struggled in this department last year, so you’d think adding Martin would help. The problem is that the struggles had very little to do with the catcher. Rod Barajas had a 25% caught stealing percentage in 2011 with the Dodgers, and was close to 30% for his career. Then he had a 6% rate with the Pirates. The reason for that wasn’t that Barajas suddenly couldn’t throw anyone out. It was because the Pirates didn’t emphasize holding the runner on. They were willing to give up free bases, which means the catcher behind the plate will struggle, no matter how good he is.
Martin might have a career 30% caught stealing rate, but if the Pirates maintain the same philosophy — having the pitchers focus entirely on the hitter, rather than splitting their attention and holding the runner on — Martin will struggle.
There are also recent studies on pitch framing, and catchers being able to get extra strikes due to their skills in this area. You can read one of those studies at Baseball Prospectus. This isn’t a widely accepted skill. I can’t say I fully believe in pitch framing. The best argument against it is that catchers on teams like the Yankees would get the benefit of the doubt, while catchers on teams like the Pirates wouldn’t see the same advantage. The counter to that is to point out that catchers from the same teams, even from the Yankees, can have totally different outcomes.
I’m on the fence about the value here, but if you’re a believer in the study, Martin looks stronger. In that BP link, Martin ranked second, and was an upgrade of 20 runs per 120 games over Rod Barajas. Barajas was an upgrade over Ryan Doumit (who was the worst in that study) but was rated in the middle of the pack.
I think I could agree that Martin would be worth a three-year, $22 M deal, although that’s speaking more to the weak catching market and how weak the position is across the league. He doesn’t hit for average or get on base, but is regarded as a strong defender, and the stats back that up. The Yankees also back that up, since the main reason they want him back is because of his defensive skills and work with the pitching staff. He does hit for power, although he should see a decline in PNC Park.
There are two issues here. The first issue is whether Martin is worth the money being reported. The second issue is whether it would make sense for the Pirates to give him that money. I thought Pat Lackey made some good points on this subject the other day.
Pirate fans like to joke (or to seriously complain) about the team not spending enough money, but the Pirates poured gasoline on and put a flint to $11 million last year in the form of the Clint Barmes contact, then took an extra $4 million and just ran it through the shredder in the form of the Barajas contract. If they sign Martin this winter, they’re going to waste $20 million over two years on three players that are barely better than replacement value and who offer no tangible upgrades over the much cheaper internal options the Pirates have.
The Pirates have money to spend. The Pirates do not have money to waste. If they sign Russell Martin, it’s a pretty good indication that they can’t tell the difference between the two. That’s a really, really bad thing.
The bold part is for emphasis on my next point. The discussion about Martin isn’t about whether he’s worth the money. It’s about whether the Pirates should pay that money. Would they be better off sticking with in-house options and spending that money elsewhere?
The Pirates currently have Michael McKenry, and he’d probably be the starter if Martin wasn’t signed. Last year McKenry hit for a .233/.320/.442 line in 240 at-bats. Those numbers are better than Martin’s 2012 numbers, although they’re hard to trust. Martin has a track record. McKenry has one season and 240 at-bats of good hitting for a catcher. He also started to fade down the stretch as his playing time increased. In the first half he had an .852 OPS. In the second half he had a .694 OPS, with a .687 in August and a .533 in September (the months he received the most playing time). The concern with McKenry is that his first half was a fluke, and he’ll end up closer to his 2011 numbers, which was a .598 OPS. Defensively he seems strong, although there are the caught stealing concerns (18% in 2012), which again are more on the pitchers.
Then there’s top catching prospect Tony Sanchez. Sanchez gets a lot of criticism for his poor hitting. This year in Triple-A he hit for a .233/.316/.408 line in 206 at-bats, seeing an increase in his power numbers in the process. Still, the overall numbers are poor. When you look at them compared to Martin, they look about the same. The problem is that Triple-A numbers don’t translate over to the majors. If Sanchez could put up that line over a full season in the majors, there would be no discussion here. He’d be Russell Martin, costing much less money. But that’s not how it works.
There have been questions about Sanchez’s defense in the past, although those questions are misguided. They first came around due to his poor caught stealing numbers, since those were the only stats people could see. That’s when Pirates fans didn’t know about the team’s philosophy to ignore the running game, which has been going on for longer in the minors. That approach makes more sense in the minors. You want pitching prospects focused on their pitches. You don’t care about wins and losses there, you care about development. In the majors it doesn’t make sense, since it literally gives away bases, runs, and wins.
The questions about his arm came in 2010, when he threw out 15% of runners, and in 2011, when he threw out 22% of runners. They also came from people who haven’t seen Sanchez, and haven’t seen his strong arm. The caught stealing numbers don’t reflect the skill. He improved to 29% in 2012, which is closer to his skill level.
The other issue with his defense comes with the “Gold Glove” effect. His offense has been so bad the last two years that it makes him a bad defender. That makes no sense at all, but that’s the way it goes. Most of the time offensive performance dictates how a player’s defense is perceived. It’s as if we can’t say “this guy is hitting horribly, but he does have good defense”. I received criticism after the 2011 season for pointing out that his defense had improved, even though the offense was horrible. Sanchez still has good defense. Again, people who have seen him can attest to this. The pitchers that throw to him swear by this, and not in the token “I have to credit him because he’s my teammate and catcher” way. I think his defense could be just as good as Martin’s defense.
The question with Martin isn’t whether he’s worth $7.5 M a year over three years. The question is whether the Pirates should spend that on Martin. I think that the defense from McKenry and Sanchez would match Martin’s defense. The big question is the offense. We don’t know what McKenry could do over a full season. Will he show the 2012 numbers? Will it be more like the second half of 2012? Will he revert to the 2011 numbers? Sanchez hasn’t been hitting well in Triple-A. There’s the possibility that he could have the exact same numbers in the majors, which wouldn’t be bad. That’s not usually how it works.
Russell Martin had 485 plate appearances last year, which coincidentally is the same amount of plate appearances McKenry had for his career. That allows for a convenient comparison. Let’s assume that a combo of Sanchez and McKenry could put up McKenry’s career numbers (.224/.298/.383 in 428 at-bats). I think that would be a reasonable assumption for Sanchez and McKenry, especially since McKenry was the one who produced the numbers we’re using. Here is how those numbers compare to Martin in 2012, looking at runs created.
Russell Martin 2012: 52.7
Michael McKenry Career: 51.4
There’s not much of a difference here. McKenry has a slight advantage, but it’s not even enough to show up on the won/loss column. But let’s go with a different approach for McKenry and Sanchez. Let’s assume they put up numbers similar to McKenry’s 2011 season (.222/.276/.322 in 180 at-bats). That would be a .598 OPS, with all of the numbers pro-rated to match the 485 plate appearances for Martin. Those results:
Russell Martin 2012: 52.7
Michael McKenry 2011: 42.4
Martin has a bigger advantage, and that advantage would probably amount to one extra win, using a ten runs per win scale.
The problem with this is that we don’t really know what a combination of McKenry and Sanchez would do. We can guess, based on the limited numbers McKenry has shown, but we don’t even know if McKenry will repeat those numbers. A McKenry/Sanchez platoon would rely on McKenry more in 2013, but would rely on Sanchez more in future years, since he has the better shot of improving his numbers. We also don’t know what Martin will do playing half his games in PNC Park. How much will his numbers decline? Are we talking Rod Barajas levels?
One issue with the deal is the time Martin would be under contract. You might make the argument that Martin is a better choice since there are fewer questions surrounding his game. That argument really only works in 2013. By 2014, Sanchez should be ready. You might be able to trade Martin, but that’s not really a guarantee, especially if his offensive numbers drop off and he becomes the next free agent to come to Pittsburgh and have a horrible season.
The other issue is that the Pirates have a limited budget. Even if they spent $70 M, they’d be spending a little over 10% of that on Martin. He’s not a good enough player and not a big enough upgrade to command 10% of the team payroll. I think you could look at the above numbers and argue that he’s not really a significant upgrade over what McKenry and Sanchez could produce, or at least not worth the difference in $7 M per year.
That’s the big issue for me, and it goes back to what Pat said. The Pirates can’t afford to be wasting money. They would be better off investing that $7.5 M per year on another position. Put that towards a pitcher. Right now the rotation has A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, and potentially Jeff Karstens, Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, and others. There are some question marks with the latter, and even the first three have some question marks. Plus, all of those guys will eventually get time in the rotation, since most teams use eight or nine starters a year. If you add another pitcher, then Locke, McPherson and/or Karstens become depth guys, rather than using Vin Mazzaro as a depth guy.
It’s not like the Pirates can’t spend the money. They’re reportedly offering $22 M over three years to Martin. They’ve made offers of $10 M per year in each of the past two off-seasons to starting pitchers. Whether they can actually get a pitcher to sign with them this year is a totally different issue. That problem would also exist with Martin, so it’s a wash. They’re probably going to have to over-pay for whatever player they pursue, whether it’s in years or dollars. They might as well go for someone who would provide the biggest upgrade, and that’s not Russell Martin.
So the three years and $22 M deal wasn’t correct. Instead they’ve got him for two years and $17 M, which is $1 M more per year. That’s still a waste of money, and a bit more than the previously reported offer. Having Martin for two years is slightly better, since Sanchez should be ready by 2014, if not sooner. The only way this move would make sense is if the Pirates saw a big increase to their payroll. Assuming Martin will make $8.5 M per year, that puts the projected salary around $69 M with no other moves. I could see Joel Hanrahan being dealt, which could bring the salary down. There’s also a chance that Jeff Karstens could be non-tendered. That would bring the salary back down around $60 M.
Unless they’re willing to make another big move and push that payroll up above $70 M, this looks like a bad decision. Their big move doesn’t provide a big upgrade to the team. The good news is that they’ve only got Martin for two years instead of three, but that’s only good news because he’s overpaid. Martin will most likely see his offense regress in PNC Park, similar to what Barajas saw. His caught stealing numbers will decline due to the philosophy of the Pirates. I don’t think his other defensive skills warrant paying $8.5 M per year, rather than having Michael McKenry split time with someone for much less. The Pirates had much bigger needs. $17 M over two years could have gone a long way to providing a bigger upgrade for the team than Martin will provide. This is a team that has a limited budget and has to spend their money wisely. This doesn’t look like a good way to spend the limited funds the Pirates have to work with.
Links and Notes
**Pre-order your copy of the 2013 Prospect Guide, which will be shipping in a few weeks.
**Tomorrow is the deadline to tender players on the 40-man roster a major league contract for the 2013 season. Teams have until midnight Friday night to make an offer. Any players who are non-tendered become free agents. Here is my rundown of the arbitration eligible players, and the chances of each player being tendered.
**The early 2013 draft rankings are starting to come out, and Mark Appel is at the top of the list.